“Remembering our sufferings should lead us to be sensitive, compassionate, and kind with the ‘ger’, stranger, who lives in our societies”
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This week’s parashah deals with different kinds of laws: civil, moral, and religious. Among these laws, there is one related to strangers. This law appears twice in this week’s portion of the Torah:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Sh’mot 22:20)
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Sh’mot 23:9)
This law does not appear only in this portion of the Torah but it appears, according to the Talmud, thirtysix times in the Torah! (Talmud Babli Baba Metzia 59b).
Why do we have this law so many times in the Torah? Maybe to highlight the importance of this law. It is important and essential to not oppress the stranger who lives in our societies.
What is the reason for that? You may say that because the stranger is a human being, it is created in God’s image. Therefore, he deserves respect and be treated with dignity as every person does. These are rational reasons. However, it is interesting to note that the Torah does not appeal to a rational argument but to an empathetic one.
We shall not oppress a stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. This is the answer the Torah gives us. Not only in Egypt we were considered strangers, but in many countries across the globe. As you may know, throughout Jewish history, Jews were living in different countries where their neighbors have considered them as strangers. This is a feeling and a situation that many Jews have experienced.
Therefore, it is true that we, Jews, have experienced this unjust situation. Is this argument enough to justify this law? Why does the Torah emphasize our own experience and memories and not a rational argument?
Besides this, the Torah could have said, since you were exploited and oppressed and no one did anything to help you, you do not owe anything to anyone. In fact, many times those who suffer oppression, abuse, and violence in their lives, then behave the same way with other people. In the Psychology field, it is common to find out that parents who abuse their children have most likely been abused by their parents. The cycle of violence continues from one generation to the next.
However, the Torah tries to stop the chain of suffering and violence. The Torah exhorts us to remember our own sufferings in order to be empathetic and not to repeat the history of violence. Remembering our own pain and suffering should lead us to be sensitive, compassionate, and kind with the “ger,” stranger, who lives in our societies.
The Torah exhorts us to transform our suffering and pain into compassion and kindness instead of revenge. The Torah encourages us to see and understand that the pain of the stranger is not different than my own. When we can understand this key lesson, the chain of oppression is broken and transformed into a symbol of solidarity.
Maybe the Torah appeals to an empathetic argument instead of a rational one because God knows very well how human beings act and function. We understand rational arguments but most of the time feelings, experiences, and memories have a greater impact in our behaviors.
So, let us try to remember what it means to feel like a stranger from our own experience, and, having this memory in mind, let us act with compassion and kindness with the people that are feeling like strangers and lonely in our societies.